Posts filed under 'Athletes'

1824: John Thurtell, the Radlett murderer

1 comment January 9th, 2017 Headsman

They cut his throat from ear to ear,
His head they battered in.
His name was Mr William Weare,
He lived in Lyons Inn.

At noon this date in 1824, upon a fresh-built black gallows adjoining Hertford Prison, John Thurtell hanged for one of regency England’s most infamous crimes.

Son of the Norwich mayor, John Thurtell was rubbish with money and had twice crashed his bombazine business into insolvency while stiffing his creditors. (John’s brother Tom served time for defrauding an insurance company with a suspicious warehouse fire.)

But these were merely business matters.

When Thurtell fell into a £300 gambling debt to thanks to Weare’s cheating at cards, maybe it was a matter of honor. Thurtell invited the Lyon’s Inn barrister to a gaming piss-up at Thurtell’s cottage in the village of Radlett. They’d be joined by Thurtell’s mates Joseph Hunt and William Probert, “Turpin lads” in Thurtell’s estimation.

Just short of their destination, on a street later to be known as “Murder Lane”, Thurtell shot Weare in the face. The shot scored only a glancing hit against his victim’s cheekbone, but Thurtell was in for a penny, in for a pound: he tackled the fleeing Weare, opened his throat from ear to ear, and pistol-whipped his skull into bloody-brained bits.

Whatever malice aforethought had moved Thurtell to this vengeful crime did not contain near enough calculation. “The whole history of the murder, and the scenes which ensued, are strange pictures of desperate and short-sighted wickedness,” Sir Walter Scott marveled.

Abandoning the gun at the scene — it was one of a paired set of which Thurtell owned the other — the killer and his friends hauled the corpse to a nearby pond, then proceeded unperturbed to the night’s revelry fresh from homicide, even donning Weare’s own clothes in subsequent days.

Worst of all from the perfect-crime standpoint, Thurtell had undertaken the crime himself (openly popping off, per the subsequent court record, “if Weare comes down, I will do him, for he has done me out of several hundred pounds”) and his companions turned on him when the investigation inevitably bore down on them. Probert went crown’s evidence immediately in exchange for immunity, even leading authorities to the body; Hunt stalled and lied for a while, but cracked soon enough.

To the nationwide outrage at this shocking callousness among obnoxious society rakes was added the whiff of scandal about Thurtell’s involvement in “the Fancy” — the semi-illicit sport of amateur boxing.

Frequented then as now both by underworld elements and society gentlemen, boxing was officially illegal but widely celebrated and openly advertised without much fear of police intervention. At the same time, the burgeoning sport — with its naked brutality, more-than-occasional fatalities, multiracial proletarian cast, and associations with various unsavory characters, had ample moral-panic potential. The Fancy, said a judge in 1803,

draws industrious people away from the subject of their industry; and when great multitudes are so collected, they are likely enough to be engaged in broils. It affords an opportunity for people of the most mischievous disposition to assemble, under the colour of seeing this exhibition, and to do a great deal of mischief; in short, it is a practice that is extremely injurious in every respect and must be repressed.

But many of his peers were there in the audience, laying their own mischievous wagers.

As magistrates it may have been their duty to discountenance, but as county gentleman it was their privilege to support, the noble champions of the art, especially when they had their money on the event.

Thurtell, briefly an amateur pugilist himself, was a trainer and promoter on the boxing circuit.


Detail view (click for full image) of “A correct view of the execution, taken on the spot by an eminent artist.” (Source)

Thurtell was anatomized after execution; a wax likeliness of the hated murderer stood in Madame Tussaud’s until the 1970s.

As for Thurtell’s confederates: Joseph Hunt’s cooperation was sufficient to cop a last-second commutation of his death sentence; he was transported to Australia instead. William Probert completely avoided prosecution thanks to his expeditious turn to crown’s evidence, but the career criminal (now practically disbarred from honest labor by dint of his nationwide infamy) found himself in hangman Foxen‘s hands not long thereafter for stealing a horse.

The foreman of the jury that convicted Thurtell went on to become the Prime Minister.

And Thurtell’s victim Weare did his own posthumous bit for the annals of English publishing when a printer multiplied its customary revenue stream on a Thurtell gallows broadsheet with a second edition headed “WE ARE alive”. Printed in such a way to intentionally make the first two words appear to read “WEARE”, its handsome sales to the gullible allegedly originated the term “catchpenny”.

There are a number of 19th century accounts of this case available in the public domain, including here, here and here.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Athletes,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Participants,Pelf,Public Executions

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1942: Evzen Rosicky, athlete

2 comments June 25th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1942, Czech athlete and resistance figure Evzen Rosicky was shot with his father at Prague’s Kobyliske shooting grounds.

His country’s former champion in the 800 meters and 400 meter hurdles, Rosicky had the honor of representing Czechoslovakia at the 1936 Olympics … Hitler’s Berlin showcase.

Three years later, it was the Czechs unwillingly playing host to the Germans. By then, Rosicky was a journalist of left-wing proclivities (he was a card-carrying Communist) and he naturally segued right into anti-occupation resistance.

Arrested and shot along with his father, Jaroslav, Evzen Rosicky is the namesake of Prague’s Stadion Evzena Rosickeho.


(cc) image of Stadion Evzena Rosickeho by Honza Záruba.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,Germany,History,Shot,Wartime Executions

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1703: Tom Cook, Ordinary’s pet

Add comment August 11th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1703,* Thomas Cook was hanged at Tyburn.

Cook — or the Gloucester Butcher, to use the sobriquet that advertised his prize fights — was convicted of giving a constable a fatal rapier thrust during a mob affray.

As he faced execution in prison, Cook continued to insist that he didn’t do it. But he still gratified the ministrations of the Newgate Ordinary Paul Lorrain by admitting to a life of sinfulness:

that he had frequently stoln [sic] Sheep, and done many ill things … He acknowledg’d he had been a grievous Sinner, a great Swearer and Drinker, an Adulterer, a Prophane and Lewd Wretch, and a sworn Enemy of those who were employ’d in the Reformation of Manners; and that for some years past he had made it his great Business to Fight for Prizes; an Exercise which the Pride of his Heart carry’d him to, which he now looks upon as most Heathenish and Barbarous, and which, with all other the wicked Practices of his Life, especially his slight of Religion, he does detest and abhor … and in the Words of a Dying-Man (who by the just Providence of God, came to suffer a shameful and untimely Death, in the primer of his years) he exhorts all those of his Acquaintance, and others that live loosely and particularly that follow this Wicked Sport of Prize playing, to reform betimes, and apply themselves to that which is virtuous and laudable, lest if they cdo continue any longer in their ill way, the Wrath of God fall upon them, and they come to the same, or worse Punishment thatn himself.

But still, he didn’t kill the cop, he said. (This, actually, was a common enough dodge among the Ordinary’s patients: it enabled them to satisfy the confessor, and the weight of social conventions he pressed on them, while also persisting with a denial of this crime one might be invested in maintaining. Whether true or no, Cook must have been unusually persuasive to pass off a story that would ordinarily be held to characterize an “obstinate” prisoner.)

Paul Lorrain, who held the Ordinary of Newgate office from 1700 to 1719, absolutely adored a good conversion story; his profession after all was ministering to prisoners. Lorrain ate all this reform-themselves-betimes stuff right up.

Two days after Cook’s execution, Lorrain compared the hanged pugilist to the Biblical patriarch Enoch at an overwrought funeral sermon (titled “Walking With God”): proof positive that even the most wretched sinner could taste God’s redemption. Cook’s “Soul is now enjoying an honourable and happy Life in God’s Glorious Kingdom,” Lorrain averred.

This was mainstream theology, but not a universal opinion.

Cook’s fellow convicts in Newgate regarded the repentant condemned as an unctuous hypocrite and didn’t share the Ordinary’s susceptibility to the actual-innocence claim Cook smuggled into his big confession of general lifelong sin.**

One of those fellow convicts in 1703 was Daniel Defoe, who met Lorrain while incarcerated and took a violent personal dislike to the prelate.

Defoe (who would later put a dismissal of the Ordinary in the mouth of his great heroine Moll Flanders) retorted to Lorrain’s published sermon with a scathing pamphlet titled “A Hymn to the Funeral Sermon”. In it, he mocks Lorrain’s racket peddling the public† broadsheets which almost invariably celebrate the gallow’s-foot conversions of his innumerable malefactors. After all, when

Men of Infamy should rise,
By Ladders to Ascend the Skys …
What need we Mortifie and Pray
If Gibbets are the Shortest Way?
In what disguise Religion may be drest,
The crooked Paths of Priest-craft Paint?
Where lies the Secret, let us know,
To make a Sheep-stealer a Saint?
Or bid me tell them that ’tis all a Jest;
What need they point out other ways,
Since Earthly Rogues can Merrit Holy Praise?
If this Wise Precedent the World receives,
Newgate shall ne’re be call’d a Den of Thieves.


Not related to Cook or to Defoe, this 1882 Puck cartoon (via the Library of Congress) makes Defoe’s same discomfiting point graphically: the soul of the hanged murderer ascends into angelic choirs, his crimes literally wiped away by his confessor — while that of his victim, slain unawares while unpurged sin weighs his conscience, wallows in hell. “The Murderer’s Straight Route to Heaven — Bringing Religion into Disrepute,” runs the caption.

* Cook had had a last-minute reprieve from joining a July 21 hanging date; in his account for that date, Paul Lorrain called out Cook by name to take “a happy Warning” from the right conduct of those gallows-birds.

** In 1706, two other men coming up for hanging made a point of insisting to Lorrain that the fighter who “with such an Air of seeming Repentance to his last breath deny’d his crime” did commit the murder.

† According to Lincoln Faller (“In Contrast to Defoe: The Rev. Paul Lorrain, Historian of Crime”, Huntington Library Quarterly, Nov. 1976), Lorrain left an estate of £5,000 at his death in 1719. His salary as Ordinary was something in the neighborhood of £35 per annum. Defoe overtly accuses Lorrain in “Hymn” not merely of profiteering but of taking payola to frame a gratifying obituary for a hanged criminal: “Pulpit praises may be had / According as the Man of God is paid.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Entertainers,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions

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1751: James Field, pugilist

1 comment February 11th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1751, Irish boxer James Field was hanged at Tyburn.

He had ditched his criminal record in Dublin for the burgeoning London metropolis and hung out a shingle at a pub on Drury Lane. (Perhaps he knew the Muffin Man.)


“dustmen, scavengers, flue-fakers, gardeners, fish-fags, and brick-layer’s labourers … the Hibernian was relating the ill usage he had been subjected to, and the necessity he had of making a hasty retreat from the quarters he had taken up” (Description of Drury Lane … from 1821. Close enough.)

Field soon developed a blackhearted reputation in London, and because he was a big bad boxer on the brute squad, constables were known to “fail to recognize” him the better to get home safe to dinner.

Even in a city without a professional police force, though, that’s a thin reed to rest one’s liberty upon. Eventually the mighty British Empire marshaled the marshals necessary to bring Field to bar for a violent heist. This time, his hulking build clinched his sure identification, and he earned the hemp for his felonies.

Field lives on in William Hogarth‘s anti-animal cruelty engravings Four Stages of Cruelty, published later in 1751. He’s the model for the hanged corpse being carved apart in the dissection theater in the last plate.

Second Plate:

In Hogarth’s Second Stage of Cruelty, a small poster in the background advertises a James Field bout against George Taylor.
Fourth Plate:

In Hogarth’s Reward of Cruelty, the hanged corpse laid out for dissection (and dog food) is modeled on James Field.

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1946: Chu Minyi, collaborationist Foreign Minister

Add comment August 23rd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1946, China executed Chu Minyi for serving as the Foreign Minister of the wartime Japanese puppet government.

Chu was a nationalist dating back to the Qing dynasty, though he spent most of the first decade after the revolution at European universities.

He returned to China as a Koumintang supporter in the 1920s.

The guy had the bad luck to be the brother-in-law of notorious quisling figure Wang Jingwei, who enjoyed the title of President of China under the Japanese aegis.

For what’s generally interpreted as reasons of personal more than political loyalty, Chu accordingly agreed to serve in Wang’s cabinet as Foreign Minister. “Chen Gongbo‘s mouth, Zhou Fuohai‘s pen and Chu Minyi’s legs” was the government’s tagline. (Chu was also a noted martial artist.)

But it was Hirohito’s guns they relied upon, and none of them would much outlive Japan’s surrender. Chu was tried as a traitor in April 1946.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Treason

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1935: Del Fontaine, punch drunk boxer

Add comment October 29th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1935, Canadian pugilist Del Fontaine was hanged at Wandsworth Prison, “the bravest fellow we ever saw go to the scaffold.”

Winnipeg-born as Raymond Henry Bousquet, Fontaine twice won the Canadian middleweight belt.

But a grueling, 98-fight career took its toll on the man.

By the end — when he had crossed the pond for a couple years traversing the English rings — Del Fontaine was visibly punch-drunk. The onetime champion lost 12 of his last 14 fights.

Punch drunk — scientific name dementia pugilistica — is just the classic diagnosis for “concussed all to hell,” afflicted by traumatic brain injury and its mind-altering long-term effects: Depression, violence, mood swings, loss of judgment and impulse control. Those are the kinds of behavior patterns that tend to brush up against the criminal justice system.

The syndrome’s popular name suggests its most visible injury, to motor skills — a symptom Fontaine’s colleagues in the business could readily diagnose.

Del shouldn’t have been in the ring at all for his last fight. He wasn’t in a fit state,” fellow prizefighter Ted Lewis testified at Fontaine’s trial, recalling a Newcastle bout that ended in a flash on three first-round knockdowns. “As a boxer, he has received more punishment than anyone I have ever seen.” The house doctor at a Blackfriars venue Fontaine had appeared at earlier in 1935 said the fighter complained of double vision and sleeplessness, and couldn’t walk straight. (London Times, Sep. 17, 1935)

If 1935 was a few decades’ shy of our present-day understanding of concussions, it was still well-enough known to those who had experience of the punch-drunk that psychological changes accompanied the physical impairments. Those who knew Del Fontaine knew he wasn’t right in the head.

The reason this tribunal had to sit for the humiliating public probe of Fontaine’s mental crevasses was that Fontaine had left his wife and kids behind when he crossed the Atlantic. Once he got to the Isles, he took up with an English sweetheart in Bristol.

This Hilda Meek, a West End waitress a decade the junior of her lover, became the object of an obsessional infatuation. In a fit of jealous rage, Fontaine gunned her down (and her mother too, although mom survived) when he caught Meek making a date with another man.

Fontaine was captured, unresisting, dolorously on the scene, and openly admitted his actions. Acquittal on the facts would be a nonstarter; diminished responsibility because of dementia pugilistica was the best defense gambit available.

The highly restrictive legal bar against an insanity defense aced out the legal maneuver: however impulsive and moody a lifetime of concussions had left him, they couldn’t be said to have prevented him “knowing right from wrong.” Still, his case attracted a fair bit of public sympathy, and when a petition for clemency went nowhere, hundreds of people, including a number of other boxers, turned up at Wandsworth to protest on the morning the punch-drunk Del Fontaine hanged for murder.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Canada,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Entertainers,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Sex

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1891: Four to save the electric chair

3 comments July 7th, 2011 Headsman

After its famously inauspicious debut the previous summer, this date in 1891 marked the second, third, fourth and fifth uses of New York’s pioneering electric chair.

Having grotesquely botched its maiden execution of William Kemmler, there was a considerable sentiment to retire the electric chair immediately.

The second round of “electrocutions” — 19th century papers still put this then-neologism in quotes — were closely watched as an acidelectric test of the chair’s staying-power. If these men burned to death, slowly and horribly, as Kemmler had, that might have been it. And had New York reverted to hanging or moved on to lethal injection,* the chair’s subsequent adoption by other states and its journey into the iconic popular culture would likely have been aborted.

But, they fixed up the chair, tested it on some more large animals, and moved the electrode combination from head+spine to head+leg … and voila!

There was nothing about the executions of the horrible nature that shocked the country when Kemmler was made the first victim of the law. If the testimony of a score of witnesses is to be believed, the executions demonstrated the use of electricity for public executions to be practical whether or not it is humane. While the Kemmler butchery, with all its terrible details cannot be forgotten, against that one awful failure the advocates of the law now point with unconcealed pride to four “successes.”

-New York Times, July 8, 1891

“Unconcealed” pride would be an interesting choice for these advocates, since these prophets of brave new death technology had themselves feared a calamitous failure of their apparatus as much as anybody — well, as much as anybody except the condemned.

Consequently,

every witness of the execution was made to pledge himself in writing never to reveal any detail of it unless requested to do so by the authorities. No newspaper representative was admitted. As THE TIMES has repeatedly stated, it was the intention of the advocates of the law to keep the public from knowing anything about these executions … Therefore, Gov. Hill** and his henchman, Warden Brown, made up their minds that these experiments with the law should not go before the public as anything else than successes, and they packed the jury accordingly with picked men.

The Times dilates considerably in this vein; ever the helpful courtier, it is concerned principally that the state’s orchestrated public relations campaign would have had more credibility had the successful executions been witnessed by third parties who have newspapers to sell. You know?

But … if only the state’s handpicked friendly witnesses were allowed to see what went down, do we actually know that it wasn’t another dog’s breakfast? The July 8, 1891 London Times — for the executions had a global audience — cobbled together a less reassuring wire report.

There are, however, many conflicting statements current as to what actually occurred, and it is extremely difficult to discriminate as to which are true and which are false … Dr. Daniels, one of the witnesses of the executions this morning, said, in an interview this afternoon, that he might tell a great deal about the affair if he were not bound to silence. He added that the Kemmler scene was practically repeated in each case, there having been two shocks given to each of the condemned men. The truth, Dr. Daniels said, would make a thrilling story.

Wait, what!?

If Dr. Daniels actually said anything like that, someone got this electric chair proponent rewrite (pdf) pretty quickly.

I was misquoted. I simply said that if I were at liberty to give a detailed account of the scenes in the death chamber the public would no doubt be interested in knowing that the executions had been a pronounced success.

You could totally see how the guy would say “pronounced success”, and this British rag would hear, “the Kemmler scene was practically repeated in each case.” Separated by a common language and all that.

For the record, the chair salvaged itself upon these unfortunates:

  • James Slocum (a former minor league baseball player†), for murdering his wife

  • Levy Smiler, for murdering his mistress
  • Joseph Wood, for murdering a fellow-laborer
  • Shibuya Jugiro, a Japanese seaman, for murdering one of his comrades

History has all but forgotten them … save that their deaths were officially ruled a great technological triumph, sufficient to rescue “the chair” from abortive 19th century penal cul-de-sac and set it on its way to becoming a pop culture icon.

* The modern-seeming method of lethal injection was actually one of the options vetted to replace the rope in the 1880s.

** Hill at this time was flirting with a presidential run, which ultimately didn’t happen: he won a Senate seat instead.

Thanks to @LisaWinston for the tip to Slocum’s sports career.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,20th Century,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Entertainers,Execution,Hanged,Murder,New York,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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2005: Shanmugam Murugesu, for the chronic

2 comments May 13th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 2005, Singapore hanged a 34-year-old for pot.

Shanmugam Murugesu, an ethnically Tamil Singaporean, was nabbed carrying a kilo of marijuana.

Your basic “wtf drug war” case study, this divorced father actually represented Singapore at international watersports competitions and otherwise led a productive, non-criminal life.

The city-state: a mite crazy over drugs. (And over the death penalty.) Mere mary jane is among the substances that can get you a death sentence there — carrying 500 grams or more is supposed to trigger automatic execution.

While awaiting that fate, Shanmugam befriended the young Australian drug mule and “simple soul” Van Tuong Nguyen, who was bound to follow in his footsteps; Shanmugam’s last appeal to his lawyer was “to save Nguyen Tuong Van’s life at all costs.”

(No luck, but it’s the thought that counts.)

Shanmugam Murugesu’s hanging was also notable as a civic event in Singapore for the landmark public protest (organized in large measure by the hanged man’s own family) it generated — a rarity for that “Disneyland with the death penalty”.

Public Forum on Death Penalty and Campaign for Shanmugam Murugesu from Jacob George on Vimeo.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Drugs,Execution,Hanged,Singapore

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1944: Not Sim Kessel, Jewish boxer

6 comments December 27th, 2010 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

“In December 1944,” begins Sim Kessel’s Holocaust memoir, “I was hanged at Auschwitz.”

He was twenty-five years old and had been caught attempting to escape.

Sim Kessel (called “Sam” in some accounts), a French Jew who boxed professionally, had been at Auschwitz for two years — a staggering period of time where the normal lifespan of a prisoner was at most three months — and had already escaped the gas chambers on two occasions.

The first time, he was in the infirmary recuperating from a severe beating and torture at the hands of the SS (one of his fingers had been cut off), and a Nazi doctor judged him incapable of recovery and took his number down. Then, a miracle: somehow, his chart was misplaced.

Four days later Kessel was selected again and this time actually marched to the gas chamber with other hopeless cases. As they were lined up, naked and shivering, waiting their turn to die, an SS man happened to pass on a motorcycle and stopped to have a look at them. Kessel recognized something in him:

Unmistakable. The stigmata of the ring. He also had muscular shoulders and a springy way of walking. I hesitated for a second and then thought, oh, what the hell!

Naked and shivering I walked up to him. I don’t know if it was a dim hope behind my overture, or some irrational kinship felt by boxers the world over, across all boundaries. I simply blurted out in German:

“Boxer?”

“Boxer? Ja!”

He didn’t wait for an explanation, he understood. […] “Get on!” he bellowed.

Kessel’s savior, whose name he never knew, took him back to camp and to the infirmary, where he made a full recovery from his injuries and rejoined the working prisoners. The two men never saw each other again. Kessel had no illusions about the character of the man who had saved his life:

This act of mercy which he had performed in the name of boxing meant something totally different to each of us. Obviously to me it was everything; for him, nothing at all. I was like a worm that one doesn’t step on at the last minute.

In December 1944, Kessel and four Polish prisoners tried to escape. He reflected later on that “the strategy could have succeeded despite its apparent idiocy.”

The idiotic strategy will be familiar to high school delinquents the world over: they casually walked out of camp together, in broad daylight, acting as if they had a legitimate destination in mind, and no one tried to stop them.

Unfortunately, they were caught the next day and sent back to Auschwitz. A public execution was the only punishment for escapees, and so the five were lined up on the scaffold in front of a crowd of some 25,000 prisoners. They each had to take their turn to die and Kessel was the last.

And then the rope broke.

Not that I knew it; I didn’t realize a thing, having lost consciousness from shock. I didn’t even know they had hanged me. […]

I came to. Or partly came to. It was as if I were in a dream, still unable to realize what was going on around me, aware mainly of the excruciating pain in my neck and back.

In some countries, if a person survives an execution they’re granted a reprieve and allowed to keep their lives. Not so in Auschwitz: you were simply hauled away and shot, this time without ceremony.

Kessel was left to the tender mercies of Jacob, described as “the camp’s official killer.” He knew his executioner’s reputation in camp and also out of it, for Jacob was also a professional boxer and had helped train the famous German champion Max Schmeling. Having nothing to lose, and remembering what had happened before, Kessel argued with him:

So I appealed to him, half in German, half in French. I argued that one boxer could not kill another boxer. That he, a former champion, a sparring partner of Schmeling’s, could not degrade himself by simply slaughtering me in cold blood.

Jacob listened and then walked away without a word. When he returned he carried a new camp uniform. Kessel was to put it on and simply rejoin the mass of prisoners outside.

Officially, Kessel was dead, and someone else’s body would be put in the crematorium ovens in place of his own. Certainly there were many bodies to choose from.

It probably wouldn’t have worked were it not for the fact that the Third Reich was in its death throes. The Wehrmacht was on the run, besieged by the Russians on one side and the Americans on the other, and within days Auschwitz would be evacuated.

Kessel survived two death marches and other dangers before he was liberated on May 7, 1945, five months after the rope broke.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Escapes,Execution,Executions Survived,Germany,Hanged,History,Jews,Lucky to be Alive,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pardons and Clemencies,Poland,Torture,Wartime Executions

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71 B.C.E.: The followers of Spartacus

1 comment May 15th, 2010 Headsman

… a Thracian of Nomadic stock, possessed not only of great courage and strength, but also in sagacity and culture superior to his fortune, and more Hellenic than Thracian. It is said that when he was first brought to Rome to be sold, a serpent was seen coiled about his face as he slept, and his wife, who was of the same tribe as Spartacus, a prophetess, and subject to visitations of the Dionysiac frenzy, declared it the sign of a great and formidable power which would attend him to a fortunate issue.

-Plutarch, The Life of Crassus

On an uncertain date roughly around this time in 71 B.C.E., some 6,000 survivors of the shattered rebel slave army of Spartacus in Rome’s Third Servile War were crucified along the Appian Way.

The specific chronology of this legendary warrior, leader of the last major slave revolt against Rome, is necessarily foggy, but in fine, he broke out of a gladiators’ camp in 73 B.C.E. and went on to lead a slave army some 100,000 strong up and down the Italian peninsula for two solid years, repeatedly stomping Roman forces sent to suppress him.

His motivations remain mysterious; if one likes, one can project back on him an anachronistic anti-slavery project, but it’s more likely he was just trying to get by day by day as the greatest empire* on the planet harried his every move and internal divisions tore at the rebel camp.

Nevertheless, Spartacus and army prospered, and plundered, in the very heart of that empire, and gave Senators reason to fret the security of their capital even as their legions carried Roman arms from Spain to Palestine.

The army (for the gladiators organized it with military discipline, realizing a mob would be easy prey for Rome) was trapped, at last, at the toe of the Italian boot by Roman plutocrat Crassus, later to become a patron of, and fellow triumvir with, Julius Caesar. Abandoned by pirates with whom the slave army attempted to negotiate passage, it was a desperate situation. Spartacus, writes Appian, “crucified a Roman prisoner in no-man’s land to demonstrate to his own troops the fate awaiting them if they were defeated.”

Duly inspired, Spartacus and his army broke out of the Roman circumvallation around February of 71 B.C.E. Hemmed in by a second Roman force, the slaves turned to fight their pursuer, Spartacus dramatically sticking a blade into his own warhorse before the fight as another one of those conquer-or-die pregame speeches.

In The Spartacus War, Barry Strauss estimates April of 71 B.C.E. for that decisive battle. The slaves lost it; Spartacus died in combat, and his ancient calumniators vied to sing his heroism on the field.

But 6,000 survivors did not go down fighting to the death. These, Crassus staked out along one of Rome’s principal highways, the carcasses left to disintegrate there for months or years.


Cursed field. The place of execution in ancient Rome. Crucified slave. (Fyodor Bronnikov, 1878)

He’s easy to admire now,** but slave revolts scare the bejeezus out of slave societies, and the Spartacus rising would keep generations — centuries — of Romans sweating about a potential repeat. (At least, elite Romans, the ones whose voices remain for us.)

Their pejorative take on Spartacus (aside from his personal valor and martial excellence, for which even hostile writers gave him credit) was long the received wisdom on this upsetter of divinely established social order. “From a small and contemptible band of robbers,” sniffed Saint Augustine of the gladiators, “they attained to a kingdom.” They “enjoyed whatever pleasures they wished, and did what their lust suggested.”

The present-day reader’s readiest association is likely the much more admiring — and famously homoerotic, which is now yet another connotation for the gladiator’s name — Stanley Kubrick classic Spartacus, which turns 50 this year and gave to the cinematic canon the stirring “I’m Spartacus!” scene as the captured slave army defiantly embraces death.

This episode is completely ahistorical, but so what? One of the wildest things about this sword-and-sandal production is how much of it isn’t made-up. Like the premise: in the lifetime of Julius Caesar, a few guys busting out of gladiator school using nothing but kitchen utensils threatened for two years to turn the Eternal City and its far-flung realms upside-down.

* Okay, still a republic, if you like. But those days were fast coming to a close.

** Especially for modern leftist radicals; Marx and Che Guevara were both big fans; German communists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht named their movement for Spartacus, and it was during Berlin’s “Spartacus Week” that they were murdered.

A number of sports clubs in the former Soviet bloc also carry the Spartacus name, including Russian football power Spartak Moscow as well as several clubs in Bulgaria, which currently governs most of the rebel slave’s ancestral homeland of Thrace.

A few books about Spartacus

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Crucifixion,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,Famous,Gibbeted,Gruesome Methods,Guerrillas,History,Italy,Known But To God,Language,Mass Executions,Myths,No Formal Charge,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Roman Empire,Slaves,Soldiers,Treason,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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